Stephon Alexander did not often really like music. When he turned eight, his grandmother, who was from Trinidad, forced him to take piano lessons in the Bronx. His teacher was, in a word, strict. “It felt like a military physical exercise to rob me of my childhood,” Alexander recalls.
Many years went by like that. Till a single day when Alexander’s dad brought property an alto sax he identified at a garage sale. “That became my toy. Music no longer for me was this regimented tedium,” he says.
Alexander blasted away in the attic. He got great. In the 8th grade, his band teacher — who played the jazz scene by night — provided to aid him get into the most prestigious music school in New York City. But he turned it down. “Because I wanted my music to be for exciting,” Alexander says. “I didn’t want it to turn into a job.”
And he never told his grandmother. Later on, in higher school, Alexander discovered the topic that would turn out to be his profession. Physics. He calls it the study of, “How the smallest items inform the biggest items in our universe.”
His passion for physics showed. He raked in the degrees, a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, fellowships in London and at Stanford University. The physics was largely function. The music, largely fun. But there had been occasions when the two collided. Like this 1 evening in Paris, Alexander was stuck on a dilemma regarding the early universe.
“So I shipped myself to the jazz clubs. You have to develop a solo on the spot while conforming to some sort of structure. Well, physics is like that, also,” Alexander says. “In between sets, I would play around with my calculations or just think extremely freely.”
Sure enough, one particular night, he watched the audience applauding, which created him feel about tiny charged particles slamming into 1 another – and the answer came to him. “The mathematics underlying that gave the properties that appear like the origins of the Big Bang,” Alexander says.
He got a publication out of it. But Alexander in no way pointed out his duality — his jazz-inspired approach to science — to his physics colleagues. He worried they’d quit taking him seriously. “A lot of instances I’d be the only black person,” Alexander says, “and there was usually that concern that since I was just diverse that, ‘this guy doesn’t have the chops.'”
As Alexander became more established, his double life converged into a single a single that fuses jazz and physics, using the lessons of every to inform the other. Take this question: How does a quantum particle get from point A to point B? A particle like an electron. In the strange planet of quantum mechanics, it can in fact take an infinite number of paths in between points A and B.
Alexander says it’s like improvising a jazz solo. Each time, he begins on note A and ends on note B. “We know that it’s starting and ending at those notes,” Alexander says. “But what happened in in between are distinct possibilities, and there is an infinite amount of possibilities.”
These days, Alexander is a professor at Brown University. And his grad students all play instruments. And when they gather to go over science, Alexander says it’s like a jazz session. “It feels like a quartet playing Miles Davis tune and every person gets a chance to solo although the other individuals help the soloer,” he says.
Alexander does physics investigation every single day, plays the Providence jazz scene at least when a week, and he’s merged his passions into a new book named The Jazz of Physics. And his grandmother is proud of him. Alexander says he understands now that the reason she foisted those piano lessons on him years ago was that to her — an immigrant from Trinidad — music was the doorway to a greater life.
“For black men and women in common and Afro-Caribbean folks, 1 mode of financial freedom was music,” Alexander says. Alexander’s grandmother intended music to be a gift for her grandson. And it was…just a diverse type of gift than she was arranging on, one that allows him to answer the massive concerns about our universe.